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The change in human nature that has come from television is, however, both small and manageable. We can deal with it through our old moral and prudential categories. Children raised on television can understand one who tells them that there are other and better forms of entertainment; there are clear examples of “conversion experiences,” in which addicts suddenly and definitively turn the thing off. Television has not led us to revise the list of human virtues so as to include apathy and voyeurism, or to downgrade the appeal of courage, justice, and self-sacrificing love. All in all, it leaves our vision of happiness unaltered. True, it has proved to be no more than a stepping stone toward other and more radical forms of entertainment and communication. But, we are apt to feel, it is best to accept these technological advances, to take comfort in the ability of human beings to adapt to them, and to incorporate them into new forms of community and new ways of reaching out to our kind. For the kind hasn’t changed, nor have its needs (see “Literacy and Text Messaging” on technologyreview.com).

But this returns me to Huxley’s dystopia. As Huxley foresaw, the same easygoing attitude cannot be taken in the face of those technological developments that bring human life itself within our power. From the moral point of view, biotechnology is inherently problematic. It is not simply that the research needed to develop its techniques involves the manipulation of living things, both animal and human, in ways that some would regard as immoral. It is that the techniques themselves are inherently subversive. Like other technical advances, they can be applied to the benefit of human beings and also to their harm. But however they are applied, when they are applied to us, they alter us in ways that affect our conception of what we are. Since our moral opinions derive from our conception of human nature, this alteration leaves us disoriented, without the capacity to judge the right and wrong of what we do. Some welcome this development, believing with Nietzsche that human nature must be transcended, into a world “beyond good and evil.” For others, however, Nietzsche’s prophecy of the Übermensch and his postmoral world should serve as a warning. For such people there is a perceived need for the President’s Council on Bioethics, whose mission is “to undertake fundamental inquiry into the human and moral significance of developments in biomedical and behavioral science and technology.”

Whichever line we take, we must recognize that we are at a turning point in our ability to alter our biological nature. We already have powers to prevent fertility and also to promote it. We can initiate life in a laboratory, and nurture it in vitro. We can screen for genetic disorders in embryos and decide from the results whether they ought to survive (see “Picking the Best Embryo from the Bunch” on technologyreview.com). We can insert new genes into parts of the adult body and will soon be able to insert them into gametes and embryos. There is hope, as the fertility expert Robert Winston suggested in his Alfred ­Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on May 13, 2001, that we might engineer the removal of the gene that causes beta thalassemia (a form of anemia)–a gene carried by one out of seven Sardinians. We can replace body parts with artificial versions, and we can transplant organs from one body to another. We can wire computer chips into the body–and maybe soon into the brain, to enhance memory or even intelligence. We are on the verge of a stem-cell therapy that could reverse some forms of blindness (see “Using Stem Cells to Cure Blindness” on technologyreview.com). All such developments both fascinate and alarm us. They promise relief from degenerative diseases. But they also undermine that “fixed point” on which the “we” attitude is focused, the fixed point of human nature–the fixedness of which was safeguarded by traditional religion in the doctrine that we are created in God’s image and are therefore as unchangeable as He.

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Credit: Sam Weber

Tagged: Communications

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